north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 

 
 
 

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In response to numerous Cherokee raids in the summer of 1776, the South Carolina government coordinated an offensive with North Carolina leaders. Col. Andrew Williamson led 2,000 South Carolina militiamen north into Cherokee territory in early September 1776 with orders to join Gen. Griffith Rutherford’s North Carolinians.
On September 19, Williamson and his men marched into an ambush in a gorge known as the “Black Hole.” The battle lasted for nearly two hours, and the militiamen eventually were surrounded and forced into a circular formation, leading to the engagement being known colloquially as “The Ring Fight.” Williamson eventually led a bayonet charge, driving the Cherokees from the field. For such a long battle, both sides suffered few casualties. The Cherokee left four dead on the field, in exchange for eleven dead and twenty-four wounded militiamen. A week later, Williamson’s force united with Rutherford at Hiwassee.
The exact location of the “Black Hole” clash is unknown, as that name was not preserved down the years in association with a particular identifiable geographical site. Some historians have posited that the site is near Wayah Gap in Macon County, based on the topography and contemporary accounts. In 1867, David L. Swain wrote an article that credited Gen. Rutherford with defeating the Cherokees at Wayah Gap in 1776. His work was partly based on the researches of writer Silas McDowell, the husband of Swain’s niece. Swain’s arguments were subsequently accepted by James Mooney, who researched Cherokee history and culture. Yet, based on contemporary accounts, the Williamson expedition was the only one of the two present at the “Black Hole” engagement. On behalf of the North Carolina Council of Safety in October 1776, Willie Jones reported on the expeditions against the Cherokee to Virginia governor Patrick Henry. The rout of the Cherokees by Williamson’s forces is the principal topic of that report, based upon the work of a member of Rutherford’s party. Likewise, William Lenoir’s diary recounting his experiences in the Rutherford campaign confirms that it was Williamson who was involved in the battle.
Other historians have argued for a site further north, in Swain County. Historian Lyman C. Draper corresponded with Silas McDowell about the subject in 1873. The latter placed Draper in contact with John McDowell, surveyor of Macon County. John McDowell supplied Draper in 1874 with a map and an account (Draper MSS., 1KK85-87) detailing the battle between Williamson’s forces and the Cherokee. According to the McDowell map, the site of the clash lies one mile north of where Burningtown Creek flows into the Little Tennessee River, just north of the Swain/Macon County line. That part of Swain County is identified on United States Geological Survey maps as “Indian Grave Gap.” Four Indian grave were found there, equaling the number of Cherokee fatalities noted in contemporary accounts of the clash. Problems with this location is that it lies far to the north and east of the direct route that would have taken the South Carolinians towards the Valley River and such Cherokee villages as Burning Town (not associated with Burningtown Creek), Tomassee, Nowewee, Little Tellico, Canuce, and Hiwassee, which Williamson and his men reached and attacked on September 23-26, as well as lying in the opposite direction from the route taken by Rutherford, which was also towards the Valley River; the two forces united in that region on September 26.
Most recently, William R. Reynolds Jr. has revived the argument concerning the vicinity of Wayah Gap as the location of the for the Black Hole fight. Building on the work of other authors and paying especial attention to contemporary descriptions of the geography of the route by campaign participants, Reynolds concluded that the Black Hole site is a long gorge running along a portion of the Wayah Road, and lying to the east of Wayah Gap and west of Franklin.

REFERENCES: James H. O’Donnell III, Cherokees of North Carolina in the American Revolution (1976)
Lyman Draper Manuscripts, Series KK, North Carolina Papers (microfilm), North Carolina State Archives
Walter Clark, ed., Colonial Records of North Carolina, VI, 260-261, 313, and 314, and X, 860-861
Arthur Faires Journal, Records of the Veteran’s Administration, Record Group 15, National Archives, transcribed by Terry W. Lipscomb, 1990 (typescript, on file in Folder Q-7: Cherokee Defeat, Historical Research Office, North Carolina Division of Archives and History, Raleigh, N.C.
J. G. deRoulhac Hamilton, “Revolutionary Diary of William Lenoir,” Journal of Southern History, VI, (May 1940), 247-259
Patrick O’Kelley, Nothing But Blood and Slaughter, I (2004)
U.S. Geological Survey Maps, North Carolina State Archives
Robert L. Meriwether, The Expansion of South Carolina, 1729-1765 (1940)
William R. Reynolds Jr. The Cherokee Struggle to Maintain Identity in the 17th and 18th Centuries (2015)
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